A Forest Divided Is an Ecosystem at Risk
About 16 inches of snow fell in my town on town meeting day. It was granular stuff that packed pretty densely. Heavy. I watched it fall all day through the window from inside my old wooden house, where I remained warm despite the vicious winds thanks to a wood-pellet furnace and a fire in the fireplace.
Thanks to technology I was able to work from home. Thanks to the town moderator, I didn't have to go out that day to cast a ballot as part of town meeting ballot voting. The moderator said he asked God to postpone the snowstorm, but God said "In New Hampshire, there's no postponing a snowstorm just because it's town meeting day."
The moderator said he reminded God to stay tuned, as the state Legislature may well take up the issue and overrule Him.
The next morning, once the winds had died down, I warmed up the tractor and snowblowed the driveway and path to the barn. It usually takes about an hour to complete the job - longer this time due to the depth and density of the snow. A "first-gear" storm I call it, since in order to not overwhelm the snowblower, the tractor has to crawl along in low gear.
The result of that work was a 12-foot mini-canyon neatly carved from the town road through the otherwise snow covered landscape of the farmyard. Over the ensuing days, March sun melted away the remaining skin of snow on the driveway, revealing the bare dirt.
One might say that I had "fragmented" the snow cover, much like a roadway can "fragment" a forest. In conservation, we often throw around the term "unfragmented forest" to described a larger area of forest that is not interrupted by roads, permanent clearings, buildings or paved surfaces.
For centuries, we have been fragmenting our forests through agricultural clearing, urban and suburban development, and other infrastructure such as, dare I say it, utility corridors. As forest conservationists, we often seek to conserve those unfragmented forest areas to prevent future fragmentation.
So what's the big deal about fragmentation of a forest?
First, studies show that once it starts, it increases. Forester Michael Snyder describes this well in a 2014 story in Northern Woodlands (my second-favorite magazine about forests):
"Over time, those non-forest patches tend to multiply and expand until eventually the forest is reduced to scattered, disconnected forest islands. The surrounding non-forest lands and uses seriously threaten the health, function, and value of the remaining forest."
The disconnected forest presents a problem we all see daily as we commute to work. The routine roadkill of frogs, salamanders and turtles during spring migrations is an easy lesson about how fragmentation by roads can have an impact on wildlife.
According to one longer-term analysis of the impacts of fragmentation, "Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth's ecosystems" by Nick Haddad and others, such fragmentation "reduces biodiversity by 13 to 75 percent and impairs key ecosystem functions by decreasing biomass and altering nutrient cycles. Effects are greatest in the smallest and most isolated fragments, and they magnify with the passage of time."
The fragments get smaller, leaving fewer acres unfragmented, and the impacts magnify. To go back to the winter analogy, it's a bit like ice-out on Winnipesaukee-once it starts, the end is inevitable. Only in the case of forests, winter never comes around again.
And so we seek to identify and conserve. And sometimes fight to keep conserved.